Best-selling author Gary Chapman talks with us about his book, Anger: Handling a Powerful Emotion in a Healthy Way

Gary, why a book on anger?

I’ve been counseling for 30 years now — I’ve had a lot of couples in my office — and most of them have anger problems. They’re either angry with their spouse or they feel like they’re spouse is being angry and unreasonable with them. I really felt when I wrote this book that if I could help people understand anger, first of all, because most people have little understanding, and then learn how to process anger in a positive way — that I could help a lot of couples. And that’s really what I’m trying to do: provide practical ideas on how to handle anger in a positive way.

Is there such thing as good anger, productive anger?

I think there is good anger and many Christians fail to recognize this. We’ve seen so many people explode in anger that we think all anger is bad. We get angry because we’re made in God’s image. We get angry because we have a sense of right and wrong and when our sense of right is violated we get angry — the same reason God gets angry.

God gives us the example on how to handle anger. You know when God is angry he does something constructive. Typically, he sends a prophet to say, You know your behavior has angered me and I’m calling you to repentance. I want to forgive you. I want to restore our relationship.

And that really is the purpose of anger in our lives. It’s to motivate us to reach out to the person that we believe did us wrong and to seek to call them to repentance so we can forgive them and restore the relationship.

Of course it’s not so easy in the midst of anger. In the context of marriage, I know it’s tough to react to anger. How do you recommend a husband and wife respond to anger?

‘Well, first of all, we need to take a timeout [laughs]. So I say to couples, “Find a way that works for you.” Some people just call timeout and take a walk and both of them honor that. Some people start counting. My mother always told me, Count to ten. I say, Count to a hundred [laughs] or a thousand. Give yourself a little time.

One lady told me. “Dr . Chapman, when I get angry I water my flowers.” She said, “The first summer I did that I almost drowned my petunias.” [laughs]

If you take a timeout, give yourself time to cool down. Ask yourself, Did they really wrong me? Or is it just that I didn’t get my way? And if they wronged you, then the Bible is clear. You need to confront them — lovingly confront them with the wrong. But if you realize they didn’t do anything wrong, it’s that I didn’t get my way and I’m irritated. That’s the issue.

I say lovingly confront. What you say is something like this: You know I may not have all the facts or maybe I misunderstood this. I’m actually feeling pretty angry, if what I think is true, but maybe I’ve missed it. But I want to share it with you because maybe you can shed some light on this. You can help me with this.

There are two kinds of anger. The first is good anger — it’s positive anger — and the second is what I call “bad anger” or distorted anger. We’re angry because of a selfish reason. Things didn’t go our way. Both of them are real, but we have to learn how to process them in a positive way.

Talking about marriage, how does a couple know, a spouse know, when anger is abusive?

If we have responses that lash out in condemnation — calling people names, words that are designed to hurt people — we’ve crossed the line. It’s a verbal abuse. On the other hand, if we throw things at people, if we shake people, if we hit people, we’ve crossed the line and it’s physical abuse. Both of those are responses to anger. They’re both wrong responses to anger — poor responses to anger — but they are responses to anger.

And the fact is many people grew up with these models and consequently they just repeat what they saw parents do. But, as adults we have to take responsibility for our anger, recognize that’s not a positive way to respond. I’ve got to find a new way to handle anger.
I’m trying to help people in the book discover that you can learn to handle anger in a positive way and it starts with the timeout and then, possibly, lovingly confronting the person.

So, there’s responsibility on both sides.

I think the responsibility when someone comes at you who is angry, is to listen to them — it’s a major responsibility — and often we don’t do that. If our spouse comes and says, I’m feeling angry; Can we talk? And they start talking about why they’re angry and if we disagree with them, we break in and say, Well, that’s not true. I didn’t say that. So here we are in an argument. They came at us and we lashed back at them.

What I say is: If your spouse is angry, it’s time for you to focus on listening. Listen to what they’re saying. Try to pick up on how they are interpreting the situation. Try to understand why they’re angry. You can’t have a meaningful response if you don’t find out why they’re angry. You have to listen long enough to understand why they’re angry.

In fact, I have seven steps of responding to an angry person and the first three are listening. [laughs] Listen, listen, listen!
You say, I think what I hear you saying is you’re angry because you had to ask me five times to take the garbage out. Is that what you’re saying?

Well, that’s part of it.’ [laughs] And then they give you the rest of it. If you listen three times, you’ll probably find out why they’re really angry and then you can say to them, You know, I understand what you’re saying. I can see how you would be angry. 

And if you listen long enough, you can honestly say: I can see how you would be angry and if I were in your shoes I’m sure I would feel the same way. And you would, if you had their personality. If you interpreted it the way they did, you’d have the same feelings.
And then you say, Let me share with you my perspective. Let me share with you what I was thinking when I did that. And now because you’ve heard them, because you’ve affirmed them, now they’re likely to hear you and you can share your side.

So anger does not have to leadBest-selling author Gary Chapman talks with us about his book, Anger: Handling a Powerful Emotion in a Healthy Way…

You used the terms “implode” and “explode” when talking about anger…

Yes. “Explosion” we’re all very familiar with because we have been the recipients of it. You know someone explodes with words or they explode with behavior in anger. Or we have sometimes done that ourselves, most of us, but imploding we’re not as familiar with. That’s holding the anger inside — it’s the Christian thing to do. They’ve seen other people explode or maybe they’ve exploded in the past and they say, That’s not right. I know God doesn’t want me to do that. So what they do is they hold their anger inside.

Well, that violates the Bible. Scriptures say in Ephesians 4:26, “Get rid of anger. Don’t let the sun go down on your anger.” That means you’re supposed to get rid of anger rather quickly.

I think we have to take responsibility for our anger rather than holding it inside. We have to do what Jesus taught and that is lovingly confront the person who has wronged us. When you hold it inside, it turns to bitterness, which is always sin in the Bible. And it turns to hatred, which is the attitude of: I wish I could pay them back. You know I wish something bad would happen to them. Well, that’s sin. The Bible says hatred is sin.

We can’t allow ourselves to hold anger inside. What happens is we implode when we do that. It’s like a building falling in on itself. Physically, emotionally, spirituality we fall in on ourselves. This often leads to depression in a person’s life.

Could you explain what you mean by “an anger agreement” in marriage?

Couples can say to each other, I know, I know from time to time we’re going to hurt each other. I hope most of the time it’ll be unintentional. Why don’t we have a plan that when we do get angry, we will both be open to listen to the other person. Let’s work out a plan.

In the back of the book, I actually have a little card that you can tear off and put on the refrigerator. The idea is that you go get the card when you’re angry and you stand in front of your spouse and read it. The card says, “I’m feeling angry right now but don’t worry, I’m not going to attack you. But I do need your help. Is this a good time to talk?” [laughs] It brings a little humor into the tension and it also says what you’re not going to do.

So you have a plan. You say to each other, I’ll be the listener. If you’re angry with me, I’ll be the listener and I’ll try to hear you out. And if we both have that little agreement, then chances are we’re more likely to follow the plan if we have a plan. Most couples don’t have a plan. They just do what comes natural for them.

Couples have told me, “Oh, we’ve never argued. We’ve never had a disagreement.” And I’ll say, “Well, you need to do that — You need to have an argument!” Would you agree with that? Is conflict a good thing?

Well, I think conflict is inevitable. People who say they haven’t had conflicts either haven’t been married very long or they’re not being honest. The reality is: No two people are alike. We have different thoughts. We have different feelings and that’s what a conflict is. We disagree on something and we both feel strongly about it.

Now, if you don’t feel strongly about it, it’s not a conflict. It’s just a difference of opinion. You know she likes yellow and he likes blue. That’s not a conflict. That’s just a difference of opinion. Unless you’re talking about what color to paint the bathroom and you both feel strongly about it. [laughs] But if you have the emotion, you feel strongly about it, it’s a conflict.

That’s where I think we have to agree: Let’s listen. Let’s talk and let’s listen. You share your side and then later I can share my side. And maybe after we share our opinions we will still realize we do disagree. Now how are we going to handle it? And you give each other the freedom to feel differently and think differently and you spend your energy looking for a solution rather than trying to argue each other into agreement.

I think argument in a marriage leads downward. We end up saying things we regret and typically we don’t win the argument. We just walk away in a draw and we resent each other.

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